STAFF REVIEW of Outward (Xbox One)

Wednesday, May 8, 2019.
by Royce Dean

Outward Box art Role playing isn’t a new concept. Proto-humans have been playing the roles of other things since the era before recorded time, when survival meant pretending to be a bush to catch dinner. Role playing has meant engaging story around a bonfire or successful espionage leading to victory over an neighbouring tribe. Even today, role playing has taken on the important task of masking nerds from their peers at conventions; because “under no circumstances can my friends be allowed to know I’m into this stuff”. Without role playing we wouldn't have most any kind of entertainment or last ditch efforts to pay for our pizzas in “some other way”. Role playing is ingrained into us as human beings, being an almost second nature to our primary one.

So, naturally, we seek out ways to play roles that are not our own... to live out fantasies if you will. Enter the RPG. Role playing games have taken on innumerable forms and helped us, the gamers, live lives as medieval heroes, cowboys, space-cops and woodland creatures of every kind to the point of nauseous repetition. Unfortunately not all roles can be played equally, and in extreme cases, may not be worth playing at all. Enter Outward, a game in which I play the role of a reviewer struggling to live in a world with sluggish controls and muddy textures.

It’s easy to see what Outward is going for. Outward brings to the surface many elements of the classic RPG that have gone by the wayside in recent years. It’s properly difficult and makes the player think ahead, prepare and assess the risks of everything they do. As you adventure, your character will get hungry, which means carrying around or foraging up a supply of food to keep your belly full. You’ll become thirsty, which means knowing where to find clean and safe drinking water. Depending on where you are or what you’re wearing, you’ll over heat or become too cold. And, perhaps worst of all, are the diseases you can contract from the wounds of battle with wild beasts which, if left untreated, will kill you.

Outward is a game that bases itself on a certain measure of reality, where things like sleeping too long in an exposed area raises the risk that your things get stolen. A reality where if they're not maintained properly, your weapons and gear will break. A reality where if you run into combat willy nilly... you’ll probably fail. If that sounds stressful to you, then Outward will absolutely not be a good time. On the upside, you can’t really die. You just faint and wake up nearby. Sort of like Pokemon.

Games that pour every ounce of realism into their world can have a dividing effect on RPG fans. That's because there are two primary categories of RPG. There are “Checklist” RPG players that get more enjoyment out of the collecting and leveling and finding every dragon summon ability elements of RPGs. Then there are “simulator” RPG players that enjoy following the life of a single individual in intimate and scrutinizing detail. You know, role playing their entire life. There's also a weird overlap between this this kind of RPG player and those that desperately want the real-life apocalypse to happen because, you know, they’d be so good at surviving or something. Of course there are all sorts of grey shades in between these two extreme camps, but Outward places itself firmly into the second realistic camp.

I'm a tad too young to have participated in the gold rush of fantasy RPGs on the PC that was the early to mid 90’s. These things were everywhere. They were a dime a dozen. You'd have the odd one like “EverQuest" stand the test of time, but the reality is that London Drugs did it's best to liquidate its fantasy shovelware by putting it beside the chocolate bars at the checkout for $0.99 because they couldn't get rid of it any other way. Outward reminds me of these game. One born of a more modern age for sure, but similar in aim and tone. I'm game to try anything new if it means I get to pick up a controller or mouse, but Outward just wasn't for me.

From the moment I started my game I felt lost. A feeling that rarely subsided throughout my time playing. Your player character wakes up having been shipwrecked not far from home and sets out to return to safety, but at no point along the way are even the basics of gameplay taught to you. Thankfully the menus aren't too complex, and the controls even less so, but bumping into your first hyena before you know how to swing a torch isn't a recipe for fun. Even more frustrating are the introductory plot points which light a figurative fire under your ass with threats of exile. So, not only are you unsure how to navigate the world, you have to do so with a timer. Outward does not make a good first impression.

To put it plainly, combat feels sluggish. Like, check the router because the latency is through the roof sluggish. Attacks have loads of start up time, and god forbid you press the button more than once, because if you do you're attacking again, leaving yourself open to counter attacks. Combat in general is, thankfully, simple to understand. You lock onto your intended target with R3 (which you’d have had to figure out yourself) and use a spell or ability with one of your 4 face buttons. Up to 8 abilities can be set in this way with your Triggers, cycling between 2 sets of 4. After you've locked onto the enemy you can strafe too, which, at least in the early game, you'll spend most of your time doing. Target, strafe until your target leaves an opening, attack, and repeat.

As you acquire better weapons and abilities this tedium begins to wane, but like I said before... Outward does not make a good first impression. If you do find that you've died in combat, which will happen often, you don't actually die. Instead you get a loading screen with a brief story piece explaining what happened to you after you lost consciousness and why you are still alive, which is great except sometimes you get plopped down into another unwinnable scenario leading to another untimely death. For a game about being prepared before jumping into the fray, you'd think they'd want to give you an opportunity to do just that. One of Outwards core systems is the ability to play coop with a friend which can soften the games jagged difficulty edges. If the goal was to make the game so unforgiving that you -have- to play with a friend, then the developers have succeeded. Better plan a playdate kids.

Outward is dark. Not just in color alone, but in the Zach Snyder's “Man of Steel” kind of way too. The whole game has a sort of dreary tone about it, which I dig. Gothic fantasy has always stood at a higher tier of awesomeness in my mind. But, the cynic in me suspects that it may be to cover the fact that the textures overall fairly muddy. This is never more clear than when you first boot up the game and begin to make your character. Outward offers you 3 different races to choose from, each one of which simply a palate swap from the last... and not a one of them have a decent looking face. Whether intentional or not, all of the facial options look grimaced, haggard and a little blurry. The hair options are better with many options to choose from, but not all of them look convincing placed on the characters head, and instead, look to be floating in place.

The world itself seems to want to make it difficult for you to do anything if it isn’t broad daylight. When night time falls, even while holding a torch, it’s nigh impossible to see anything save the 3 square feet around you. This is a shame because there are some pretty cool vistas that I would have loved to have seen more of while playing. Overall there are a lot of very interesting character and creature designs in game, but those get drowned out by the looming darkness most of the time. Outward simply suffers in far too many ways for me to say I enjoyed myself playing it. What would be a splendid RPG in scope and theme is dragged down kicking and screaming by rough gameplay and difficulty that sources almost solely by never knowing what's going on.

If any time at all is spent on polishing up combat and the introductory segments of the game, then Outward could find itself in a much more favorable situation, but unless numerous patches or a sequel are in our future, then we may just have to accept this game for what it is: not great. That isn't to say that there isn't at all an audience for a game such as this. If you get off on diving into the unknown in a truly old-school way, only this time without an instruction manual, then you might consider giving Outward a try. Just don't say I didn't warn you.

Overall: 5.0 / 10
Gameplay: 4.5 / 10
Visuals: 6.0 / 10
Sound: 5.5 / 10


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